Oliviero Toscani--the Italian photographer, magazine designer and creative monkey-wrencher--sold knitwear to a whole world, a multicultural Family of Man, otherwise known as the United Colors of Benetton.

He then fed that family some of its own despair: disease, starvation, ethno-unrest. On his billboards, priests kissed nuns; horses of different colors copulated symbolically; meaty newborns oozed into life.

Now Toscani's really done it.

Benetton's new "We, on Death Row"--a yearlong $20 million global ad campaign--will sympathetically portray American murderers awaiting execution, conveying what's on their doomed minds. It has brought on the inevitable apoplexy of death penalty proponents, and again brings the Benetton name a heap of hype.

If it feels like we've been here before, it's because we have.

Toscani, 57, has reliably subverted everything we know about the Devil's science of advertising. In Benettonland, social commentary long ago supplanted fashion.

The question, as always, is why? What do Toscani and his patron, billionaire Luciano Benetton, gain when they yank the chains of the bewildered herd?

There's a direct message here (death penalty: bad), but also there is a more subtle, off-color Italian hand gesture flung in our direction: You and your death penalty are in danger of being disowned by the Family of Man.

"Once again, it's very hard for people to see what we're doing and understand that it's not advertising, that it's a way to get people to think," said Mark Major, Benetton's U.S. director of communications. Count Sears, Roebuck and Co. among those not getting it. Sears, which sells a lower-priced line of Benetton products, announced last week that it had not known about the campaign and strongly disapproved. Sears officials said Thursday that Benetton had agreed to curtail the campaign a bit. But Benetton's spokesman said the campaign is going ahead on its global schedule, which will include billboards and magazine ads in Talk, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.

Major has spent recent weeks distilling Benetton's odd logic. "Mr. Benetton and Mr. Toscani do not want to simply be bystanders in the world," he said. "They want to be participants. It's such a foreign thing for Americans to understand."

It's certainly not about merino wool sweaters, miniskirts or ponchos--which relatively few of us seem to be buying. American shopaholics account for about 16 percent of Benetton's global $2.4 billion in revenue, and yet in the coming weeks the United States will get the brunt of the death row campaign.

The Strategy

Seven of the 26 prisoners photographed by Toscani and interviewed by freelance journalist Ken Shulman have started appearing on billboards, posters and print ads across the country this month--some not so far from the communities where they killed, or where they're imprisoned--along with their quotable sentiments in large type. ("We are still human. We still have feelings," is one. Many of the prisoners declined, upon reflection, to participate in the wider billboard campaign.)

Toscani is 17 years into his ongoing obsession to communicate a whole new form, a contrivance of journalism and art with an enigmatic undercoat of name-branding. Some of his past billboards were banned in Europe. He has, at various times, angered gay people, the church, AIDS advocates and various militaries--but never recalled a campaign, as fellow hypester Calvin Klein has.

"We, on Death Row," his magnum opus, was unveiled Jan. 10 with a 96-page catalogue "outsert," which has been "polybagged" with the current issue of Talk magazine, circulation 600,000. (New forms of communication require nifty new terms as well.)

The prisoners (in the correctional couture of hot reds and oranges) look sad, yet dignified, even when grinning ear to ear. Some have that chilling spark in their eyes, untamed by their cinder-block and fluorescent-bulbed confines.

As a condition to gaining access, Toscani and Shulman agreed not to discuss the specifics of the prisoners' crimes. This has created additional furor from journalism watchdogs, who say the Benetton team compromised the project by sidestepping the grislier details.

"The prison inmates may be objectified, but the people they killed don't seem to exist at all," wrote Timothy Noah at Slate, the online magazine.

Bob Garfield, a columnist at Advertising Age, was even more repulsed: "It is a screed. . . . There is no brand--not a single one--that has the right to increase its sales on the backs, on the misery, on the fates of condemned men and women, much less their slaughtered victims."

Shulman, 42, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and contributes to Newsweek and National Public Radio, among others, defended his work on the project, and wonders if the swell of controversy and anger is genuine, or if it is a byproduct of the hype: "I would be ashamed if we'd made false claims. . . . So far, the people who are throwing stones don't really have the right to."

So, all right. What is on the minds of convicted murderers? (Besides murder?)

"There's just nothing here. There's no togetherness," says Cesar Francesco Barone, awaiting lethal injection for raping and killing four Oregon women in the early '90s (information that's not included in Benetton's report). "Myself is my home."

"TV is a very big influence. In here we call it the Big Monster," observes Edgar Ace Hope, convicted of two counts of first-degree murder--of a Chicago cop and a security guard, it turns out.

Jeremy Sheets, a 25-year-old awaiting electrocution (he kidnapped, raped and murdered a 17-year-old girl in Nebraska), believes that "parents aren't spending enough time with their kids."

The Pitch

"You have to lie," Toscani said about advertising last Friday, in his calm, Italian-accented voice, on the Fox News Network's "Hannity & Colmes," one of those cable television news shows where everyone usually winds up screaming at one another. "You have to get the girl getting anorexic. You have to get all the lies through, and everybody accept that. As soon as you come up with something that really exists, everybody get offended."

This was the only fully formed thought Toscani managed to emit. Sean Hannity, the host, went in for what he must have believed to be the kill, to Toscani's indifference:

Hannity: There are families of the victims that they raped and that they murdered. And you know what? You're not thinking about them.

Toscani: Here again is the--

Hannity: Oh, there I go. Oh, how dare I think about the victim, unlike you . . .

Toscani: You can think about anything you want as well as I can.

Hannity: I can, I can, I can.

In this television appearance (one of several Toscani and spokesman Major have recently made) the word "Benetton" was uttered 19 times. It appeared on screen four times.

Thus unfolds this curious dance between Toscani's ability to provoke us and our willingness to be provoked. (Perhaps we have a secret love of being provoked?) Realize there is much to gain for the antagonizer. Think of Americans as the Incredible Hulk, with credit cards. What good is an Incredible Hulk if he is never irritated enough to explode? Arty Europeans with something to sell seem able to draw out our Hulk, as if by instinct.

Luciano Benetton, who last ranked No. 111 on Forbes's list of billionaires, and Oliviero Toscani share an ideology as world citizens; their collaboration has been likened to that of a moneyed pope and his edgy Michelangelo. ("They are working from the same page on these issues," Major says. "They spend a lot of time together.") They could easily, over breakfast in the hills outside Milan, decide that dropping $20 million on a striking death row invective--which could harm their business more than help it--is not only very exciting, it's also chump change.

The Sale

For we are a trifle to Benetton's purses. Think, exactly, when you last had business in a Benetton boutique--only 200 of 7,000 stores are in the United States.

It's rush hour on a chilly Wednesday evening. Pedestrians are focused on their nightly stampede toward the Dupont Circle Metro escalator on 19th Street. The Benetton store is as it ever was; large posters of the gentle faces of globalism flashing diverse smiles at the ambivalent masses. Inside, Sting plays on the sound system. ("Free, free, set them free . . .") Is it 1985? The sweaters are folded too preciously; if you touch something, it seems you'll miff an ethnically ambiguous salesclerk. It's friendly, yet remote.

There is one customer. A pretty salesclerk is gently telling her why a pair of black wool dress slacks don't seem to fit: "That's the style, that's the way they are. It's not you. It's the way they're cut."

It's unfashionable to kill our killers, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But for now, it's the way we're cut. Even as Toscani wants us to understand killers have feelings, too, we go on not quite getting why he even cares. Toscani counts on that shockable ignorance most of all. Banks on it, even.

CAPTION: Sending a message to America: Oliviero Toscani, right, and his patron Luciano Benetton.

CAPTION: Bobby Lee Harris, above, on North Carolina's death row for a 1991 stabbing, and Leroy Orange, condemned in Illinois for the 1984 killings of four people, are part of the Benetton campaign against capital punishment.